Cover Story: Chantal Walker

Taking action

After more than two decades as Local Government Super, a monumental rebrand has breathed new life into the $14 billion industry fund. Jamie Williamson writes.

Local Super.

That was one of the names bandied about in the initial stages of Local Government Super's mammoth rebrand efforts.

At the end of the day, brands don't exist. They only exist between your ears; it's all about perception.
To those leading the project, it was a sure-fire winner.

Not only did it play on the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with community, but it also removed the word the $14 billion superannuation fund felt was getting in the way of growth; people thought they had to work in a government role to join, while existing members assumed they had to find their retirement savings a new home once they quit public service.

The name was perfect, right?

"Wrong," chief digital and marketing officer Chantal Walker laughs.

"When researching names with existing members, the obvious one, Local Super, didn't make the cut as members want their super to be invested globally, not just in New South Wales or in Australia. Local to them, is the corner store."

What Walker's referring to is the mountains of ethnographic research the fund undertook in the months leading up to its May 2021 rebrand.

Ethnographic research is a qualitative method where researchers observe and/or interact with study participants in their day-to-day lives. A branch of anthropology, ethnography seeks to understand how people live their lives and why.

Engaging its members, the fund gave participants a task to complete every day for a week, designed to shed light on what they were dealing with at any given point in time and where finances fit into their lives.

"At the end of the day, brands don't exist. They only exist between your ears; it's all about perception," Walker says.

"We had to understand people's perception and the psychology behind their decision making, because the decision to rebrand is not one that's made lightly."

Reinforcing this point is the fact that this wasn't the first time Local Government Super had considered rebranding - but it was the first time all the relevant stakeholders had been a part of the project.

"One of the things that made this work so enjoyable is the engagement with all the different stakeholders and audiences, and one of the things that was so fun for our whole organisation was the engagement with the teams, all the people that have worked with the fund and all the members," chief experience officer Heather Dawson says.

"Their excitement for being on the journey and then the excitement when we launched it... I'll never forget it."

Two worlds collide

Collaborating to bring Active Super to life, Dawson and Walker's backgrounds couldn't be more different.

A native of the US Midwest, Dawson got her start in financial services in the early 1990s working in business development and 401k.

"My background wasn't boardrooms, it was standing on factory floors and loading docks at 5am before the guys went out for their runs, yelling at them, 'Hey, do you want to learn about 401k?'," she laughs.

In 2005 she relocated to Sydney when she was appointed managing director of Russell Investments Master Trust. In the three years she held the role, the team introduced lifecycle retirement funds to the Australian superannuation landscape; something Dawson says was a slow burn. But now these products represent almost half of the MySuper market, according to Rainmaker Information.

"I remember standing in front of a big crowd of journalists unveiling the first true Australian lifecycle funds, and I remember the journalists and also the financial advice community saying, 'This will never work, 70/30 balanced - that's how you invest for retirement'," she recalls.

"Unfortunately member take up was low as we didn't make it the default, but one of the things I'm so proud of is that today so many funds use lifecycle as the default, Active Super included."

Senior roles at the Mercer Super Trust and Morningstar followed before finally, in November 2020, she landed her current role.

At the same time, Walker had just been recruited to lead Active Super's marketing efforts and online experience, with a specific focus on driving the rebrand.

Hailing from South Africa, Walker has also worked across various geographies, aiding in the evolution of some of the world's biggest brands.

Yet, she'd never worked in superannuation or the retirement space.

"The super industry is quite funny because it's full of really smart people who tend to find their groove and they might whiz around within the industry, but they don't ever really leave it," she observes.

"Marketers are a little more promiscuous. They find their groove but it's generally much broader than a single industry."

For Walker, she found hers working with companies that provide a service; Vodafone, Telstra, Foxtel, and Qantas among them.

"They all provide intangible experiences but it's about giving people what they want and in a channel that works for them - and that's what superannuation needs to be about," she says.

"I am constantly telling our team that we need to look at companies who treat you like they know you and give you things you didn't even know you needed, but once you've got it you don't want to give it up."

Citing Netflix as an example, "it thinks for you" and that's what the super industry should be looking to emulate, Walker believes.

Supporting this, Dawson points out much of the pressure being felt in the industry at present is because competition has never been so rife.

"Australia has a compulsory system, so we've had Superannuation Guarantee contributions coming in for nearly three decades. But now, we as super funds have to really compete for the first time," she says.

"That means we need to be constantly looking at ways to make it easy for our members to do business with us."

For whatever reason, marketers and experience leads aren't often credited with improving people's financial literacy but, charged with getting the word of Active Super out there, that's exactly what Dawson and Walker are doing.

With roles that revolve around engagement and education, they're powerful influencers - just not the kind the world is now used to.

Reflecting on her early days, travelling the US, hosting 401k participant meetings at 22-years-old, Dawson says: "It was the best job I ever had, and it's been my north star ever since. You talk about financial literacy or just educating and helping people take small steps, the light in their eyes, the standing a little bit taller when they decide to take a positive step - it's never left me."

"Money scares a lot of us so we back away... I really believe we're here to help people build confidence to stay the course."

What's in a name?

With the name Local Government Super posing so many issues for the fund in terms of growth, finding the right name was at the top of Dawson and Walker's list of priorities.

In addition to Local Super, the team behind the rebrand tested several other possible monikers with members and other stakeholders.

Thinking about the values of the fund, Members First Super was considered. "We thought that was great," Walker recalls.

"But it's actually just tickets to the game - it's not a name."

Eventually, Active Super won out.

In addition to the advantage of being at the top of any alphabetical list of super funds, it's also a name that reflects what the fund and its membership is about, Walker says.

The super fund has an active investment style, and its members are actively engaged, certainly more so than many other funds'; last financial year 36% of Active Super's members made additional contributions to their super, at some point in their membership 33% have made an active investment choice other than MySuper and the open rates on member communications consistently exceed 60%.

There is also a strong focus on being actively involved with members, which Dawson says is part of the fund's heritage and is never going to change.

"We will evolve in the digital space but not lose our personal touch. We have a contact centre team that is so loved by our members," she explains.

"That's really important to our heritage and it's important that our service model builds off of that heritage of personalised service."

But it isn't just the call centre staff that hear member feedback. Each week a different executive is tasked with bringing the 'voice of the member' to the committee meeting, sharing a story about a member from the previous week.

"It helps us to learn the good things that we do and where we're letting our members down and we need to lift our game... Now it's spread to our financial planning team who do it in their meetings," Dawson says.

"That just helps us make sure we never forget who we're here to serve."

The art of the rebrand

It's fair to say that most super fund branding is boring. And not only is it boring, but it's generic; a website for Super Fund A could just as well be a website for Super Fund B. But there is no mistaking Active Super's imagery.

Developed by a Sydney-based illustrator within creative agency Principals, variations of the bright and fun concept are plastered across Active Super's website. The fund has hundreds of different images it uses across the site and its member communications, ranging from basic designs to intricate illustrations.

The artwork is uniquely Australian, with luscious green leaves and trees, black cockatoos and king parrots evoking thoughts of the bush, while also reflecting the fund's strong commitment to ESG investing, with colourful flora and images of serenely happy men and women running through hills, surrounded by wind turbines.

And not only does Active Super own the copyright to the imagery, but in doing so, it's saving members money.

"It's incredibly cost-efficient. Thinking about members' best financial interest, this is the best way to do it versus having to do a photo shoot every time and pay for hair, makeup, a photographer and royalties and so on," Walker says.

Where you do see shoots of this kind, for instance in the annual report, the people photographed are real Active Super members.

"The first photo shoot of members we did was pre-lockdown [in Sydney] and we put the call out to members, and we were all sitting in the office and response after response started coming through - we got about 200 responses within an hour or two," Dawson recalls.

Investing for the future

At a time when every institutional investor is jumping on the ESG bandwagon, whether authentically or otherwise, Dawson and Walker saw the need to reinforce Active Super's long-held but perhaps poorly promoted ESG credentials.

Back in 2001 the fund became the first Australian super fund to exclude tobacco from its investment portfolio and in 2009 it was among the first investors to recognise the risk climate change poses. It is one of only four super funds to have all its products certified as ethical by the Responsible Investment Association Australasia and was the first super fund with a diversified property portfolio to achieve a '6 Star Green Star - Performance' rating from the Green Building Council of Australia.

Further, it became a signatory to the Principles of Responsible Investment in 2007 and has been certified carbon neutral by Climate Active for the past two years, one of only five Australian funds to achieve this.

"With this brand and the positioning of Active Super, it is very much finding that duality of performance and doing the right thing for the greater good," Dawson says.

"Our super fund was sort of the best kept secret when it came to ESG... Finding a voice for ESG and leadership was incredibly important in the brand, and you see that coming through in the imagery, the name and the way we talk in very human terms about what it means for members and for the greater good."

Throughout the process, Walker adds: "We'd say, 'Investment returns, that's good - but investment returns that don't harm the environment? That's greater good'."

"It takes it to that higher order, and it's about the E and the S and the G. I think too often people can focus just on the E and they forget the S and the G, but the G is super important because it's the G that often drives the E and the S."

And again, it's about being active in this space.

"The team often says, 'We're not activists, we're active investors'; active in helping companies make change," Dawson says.

Measuring success

The key metric Active Super looks to in measuring the impact of the rebrand is net member growth.

The fund has net member growth "for the first time in years", Walker says, with people joining from across the country.

"We have turned that around. Rather than negative net member growth, we have positive net member growth year on year and that means two things - it's members coming in but also less members
leaving," she explains.

The fund also tracks brand awareness and brand perception, conducting a survey in April ahead of the rebrand and again a few months after. While the results of the second survey aren't finalised yet, the initial data collection showed Local Government Super had "zero brand awareness".

"I think it was about 2%, and that's being generous... so I'm really going to be fascinated to see what we've shifted the dial on," Walker says.

Over the long-term, another major metric will be seeing how the fund can diversify its membership and increase member engagement and financial literacy, specifically those of different backgrounds.

Through software, Active Super can predict with about 85% certainty the ethnic origin of its members, looking at first name, last name and address. With this information, Active Super is able to cater its marketing and communications to specific local government areas.

"Our base today is not as broad as it could be and we are working to expand it and increase engagement with Australians from all different backgrounds. We recognise that there's a huge opportunity for growth in those pockets of diversity in the community," Walker says.

But the Active Super team is diverse, with 16 of the 100 people working at the fund being of a different cultural background and 19 different languages spoken.

The team has also had expert cultural training to better understand where a member might be coming from or how to approach any given situation.

"We want to make sure as we serve a more diverse membership that we actually bring forth the diversity within our own organisation," Dawson says.

"We're just at the beginning of this journey but I think it's a wonderful opportunity for all super funds to learn to serve this multicultural, diverse society that we have in Australia, and to reach out, be human, be respectful, and help people really get active with their super."

As immigrants themselves, Dawson and Walker are both passionate about seeing this strategy succeed but they're also cognisant of the learning curve they're on.

"It may not work... I keep saying to Phil [Stockwell, Active Super's chief executive], kind of hedging my bets, 'I think this will work'. He and the executive team have adopted the whole 'test and learn', agile approach... I'm nothing special, but I think if you can try stuff, test it, learn, pivot, adapt and collaborate, that's the best way to be," Walker says.

Regardless, she's calling the rebrand a success.

"But I'm bullish," she says.

Building on that, Dawson reinforces the competitive environment Active Super is operating in.

"We know that for every super fund we have to keep getting better at what we do. Not only in terms of member experience, but performance and fees too," she says.

"We have a comprehensive strategy for growth for the next five years, but the brand is a key part of that... The brand's success is a wonderful start for us on that."